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Bringing up parents; Observations.


Bringing up parents; Observations.

June 1, 2003
Urban PolicyOther

ARE AMERICAN parents nuts? Sometimes it seems like it. A friend recently told me of a young acquaintance, the mother of a two-year-old girl, who was seriously considering not having a second child because bringing a new baby into the house would, as she put it, "hurt my daughter's self-esteem." In the locker room of a gym, I once watched a young woman dressing her baby after a swim. "Here is your shirt," she said. "It's a pink shirt. I'm putting the shirt on your left arm. Now I'm putting it on your right arm. Here are your socks. I'm putting the sock on your left foot. Now I'm putting the sock on your right foot. Here are your pants." And so on. The baby attending this lecture sucked on the towel draped over her mother's shoulder and studied a patch of peeling paint on the wall.

Weird as these behaviors may be, they cannot be blamed on simple ignorance. To the contrary, there seems to be a strong correlation between the number of years people have spent at a university and the number of loopy notions they hold about how to raise children. Many of the notions derive, in fact, from books on child-rearing, which parents and would-be parents now purchase by the library-full--five times as many in 1997 as in 1975.

A search of "parenting" books on Amazon yields over 23,000 entries. Here one finds rifles devoted to infants, toddlers, preschoolers, kindergarteners, "your ten-year-old," "your ten-to-14-year-old," "your teenager," the first three months week-by-week, the first twelve months, the first six years, the "roller-coaster years," the tween years, the teen years, the college years. There are books about the "sensitive child," the "anxious child," the "spirited, " "anorexic," "gifted," "late-talking," "explosive," "out-of-sync," "thumb-sucking," "shy," "defiant," "willful," "right-brained," and "psychic" child. Then there are specialized how-to manuals on nursing, infant massage (a recent fad for "de-stressing" babies), feeding, soothing, sleeping, toilet training, playing with your baby, buying the right toys for your toddler, finding the right story books for your preschooler, building your baby's brain, setting limits for your teenager, teaching manners, cultivating "social IQ" and "emotional intelligence," preparing for a new brother or sister, and talking about (at a tome apiece) feelings, fears, adoption, God, money, and sex.

This is not the first generation of Americans to tie themselves in knots over an activity that the vast majority of our species has managed to perform fairly successfully without cracking a single book. The truth is, we have been neurotic about childrearing for at least the past century. In 1913 the writer Randolph Bourne, observing "a complete bewilderment on the part of the modern parent," scoffed at the "timorousness" that was leading mothers to attend clubs organized by the public schools in order to teach them how to bring up their children. The "greatest generation" may have defeated Nazi Germany and imperial Japan in World War II, but they went weak at the knees when it came to facing down a five-year-old who balked at eating his meatloaf. "In no other country has there been so pervasive a cultural anxiety about the rearing of children," one expert commented in the 1950's. Dr. Spock began Baby and Child Care (first edition 1946) by patting nervous parental hands--"Trust yourself: You know more than you think you do"--but his famous words failed to make a dent in the near-universal distress.

Two new books, Ann Hulbert's Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice about Children * and Peter N. Stearns's Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America, ([dagger]) tackle the question of why parental angst is so much a part of the modern American character. Hulbert, the author of a highly regarded biography of Jean Stafford, offers a thorough history of the literature on child-rearing, linking much parental nail-biting to the rise of white-coated "scientific" experts whose self-assurance has long served as a rebuke to the supposed amateurism of ordinary mothers and fathers. Stearns, the editor of the Journal of Social History and the author of numerous books on American culture, traces our problems to a different source. As he sees it, 20th-century Americans went wrong when they rejected the sturdy image of youth found in the books of writers like Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder, choosing instead an idea of children as vulnerable dependents who require classes to bolster their tender psyches and a panoply of protective gear for their fragile bodies. Neither one of these books is likely to reassure today 's addled parents, but together they have many an instructive tale to tell.

FOR MOST of our history, parents in the U.S., like parents everywhere else, relied on religious and cultural tradition for lessons on how to bring up Dick and Jane. But as the 19th century merged into the 20th, Americans became increasingly convinced that science, with its systematic observations and efficient methods, could better organize a whole range of human activities, including child-rearing. A new generation of doctors and scholars, influenced by Darwin and William James, set out to conquer what they saw as the uneducated instinct, irrational folkways, and Victorian sentimentality that made parents ineffective and even harmful.

In Hulbert's telling, these scientists were not exactly dispassionate technicians. Many were utopian social engineers, convinced that they were assisting in the creation of what G. Stanley Hall, one of the most eminent of the early psychologists and a teacher of John Dewey, called a "superanthropoid." "The very meaning and mission of childhood is the continuous progress of humanity," one speaker at an 1899 mothers' convention pronounced. Feeding the urgency of the new field of "child study" were the poor immigrant children then beginning to fill American cities and schools. In response to their needs, progressive philanthropists like John D. Rockefeller took up the banner of child psychology, a subject that, in short order, spawned institutions like the Bank Street College of Education and Columbia University's Teachers College, prompted the creation of new government agencies, and colonized the mass media.

Why did Americans so hungrily seize on the experts' ideas, even those that flew in the face of deep-rooted traditions and, in some cases, common sense? Hulbert and Stearns point to a range of far-reaching social factors. First were demographic shifts that were transforming the domestic arrangements of young parents. With the move into big cities from farms or (in the case of immigrants) from abroad, women increasingly found themselves isolated from the network of mothers, aunts, and grandmothers who in the past had handed down female wisdom about infant care. Adding to the clout of the experts was, in the case of the middle class, growing affluence: more mothers had time to become obsessive about their children, an unthinkable luxury for poor and rural women preoccupied with necessities.

The experts also appealed to the public's fascination with being "modern." In particular, scientists found an eager audience among increasingly well-educated females, middle-class women enamored of the notion that they were raising their children in partnership with up-to-date professionals. In this connection, the supposedly outmoded ideas of the previous generation became a subject for eye-rolling. In 1917, one authority only half-jokingly proposed titling a chapter of his book, "The Elimination of the Grandmother." According to a 1940 poll cited by Stearns, the majority of parents believed it vital to raise their children differently from how they themselves had been raised. This result would no doubt hold today as well.

Fueling the steady need for a feeling of up-to-dateness has been the regularity with which child-care experts have claimed to make ever new, breakthrough discoveries. Throughout the 20th century there was a constant flow: new categories of childhood, new promises, new fields of specialty. In 1904, G. Stanley Hall published a two-volume treatise on "adolescence" that among other things introduced the word itself into everyday parlance. By the 1920's, experts had come up with terms like "preschooler" and "toddler," each accompanied by its own theories and recommended techniques. Our own day's contribution to progress has been the unearthing of such heretofore unknown creatures as "tweens" and "emerging adults."

Sociological pressures aside, one very good reason that so many parents embraced modern theory is that it was saving young lives. At the end of the 19th century, more than one in six children died before the age of five. Luther Emmett Holt, the first pediatrician with a national reputation (pediatrics having emerged as a medical specialty only in 1880), came to prominence in part because of his work developing safer formulas for infant nutrition. He helped to save an incalculable number of babies from the "wasting diseases" that still kill millions in Third World countries. It was a great sign of medical progress when, by World War II, accidents had replaced disease as the leading cause of death among children.

Stearns seems to find it suspect that parental worries increased during this same period, but it actually makes perfect sense. As medical progress gave people a growing sense of control over their children's fates, worry replaced fatalism--all in all, a healthy development. But the fast pace of technological change also added to the sense that modern life itself was a danger to children 's health. Parents had known for centuries that they had to protect their children from falling down wells or into fireplaces; the 20th century, introduced a slew of new hazards, from electrical outlets and automobiles to junk food and, lately, the Internet.

STILL, WHATEVER genuine contributions the experts may have made to children 's well-being, even a casual perusal of the history of childrearing expertise in the U.S. leads ineluctably to the conclusion that parents have often been as gullible as their three-year-olds. As Hulbert points out, the number of expert "findings" grounded in rigorous science has been small, and even in those few cases it has been difficult if not impossible to translate the findings into practical advice. The result has been a catalogue of the faddish, the fantastic, and the contradictory.

Parents have been informed in no uncertain terms that babies should cry 15 to 30 minutes a day for "exercise"; that they should never play with a baby younger than four months; that "rattle behavior" develops in 53 distinct stages; and so forth. Opinion has fluctuated wildly on something so basic as maternal affection toward newborns. Hulbert uncovers a popular 1920's book--ghostwritten by, of all people, H.L. Mencken--whose first chapter, titled "Slaughter of the Innocents," chastises mothers for lavishing too much fondness on their infants ( "Kissing a baby after it has been fed ... is very likely to cause it to vomit"). Later experts were quite sure of the contrary, warning mothers that failure to show affection would cause poor neural circuitry, depression, even autism.

Authorities have been similarly erratic on the subject of stimulation. At the beginning of the 20th century, Luther Emmett Holt advised parents not to play with their babies. "Undue stimulation," he wrote, could be harmful "in these days of factory and locomotive whistles, trolley cars and automobiles, music boxes and the numberless mechanical toys in the nursery, door-bells and telephones in the house." By the 50's, as Stearns notes in one of his more compelling chapters, parents began to fret about their children's boredom. This worry has grown into such a mania that even little babies are now subjected to nonstop entertainment--mobiles, stuffed animals, baby gyms, crib mirrors, Mozart tapes, Baby Einstein videos, etc. But not so fast: an article just published in Science, too late to be included in either book, echoes Holt's admonitions, raising the possibility that the noise of modern life is contributing to "auditory and language-related developmental delays."

Perhaps the most powerful testimony to the credulity of American parents is the remarkable career of the behaviorist psychologist John Broadus Watson (1878-1958). Watson's biography alone should have kept him out of polite scientific company, not to mention middle-class nurseries. The son of a fierce Baptist mother and an alcoholic father who abandoned his family, Watson was a troubled and angry boy, arrested on more than one occasion for violent behavior. Even after finishing college and beginning his career, he remained a self-involved and bitter man, his interest in Pavlov's manipulative theories and experiments perfectly fitting his compulsive personality.

Yet none of this stopped Watson from becoming the nation's most renowned child psychologist of the 1920's. His popular Psychological Care of Infant and Child combined rants against clueless mothers with minute instructions for training children to behave like rats in a maze. The book begins with a description of a train ride during which Watson was compelled to witness a boy receiving no fewer than 32 kisses from the women around him. Such displays, Watson argued, sprang not from real affection but from female self-indulgence, even perhaps from a need for sexual titillation. "Mother love is a dangerous instrument," he wrote in one passage, and in another: "Parents today are incompetent. Most of them should be indicted for psychological murder." Yet these same parents bought Watson's book in huge numbers, and no less an eminence than Bertrand Russell was an admirer.

Is it necessary to add that the "scientific" experts to whom Americans turned for advice were often failures at raising their own children? John Broadus Watson's sons tried to commit suicide, one of them successfully. The sons of both G. Stanley Hall and Benjamin Spock were deeply alienated from their fathers. After attempting to follow the advice of the mid-century psychologist Arnold Gesell, his own daughter-in-law finally notified him that "frankly, science is nothing to me when compared to a few minutes more sleep." Many an honest mother, and father, will echo these sentiments.

HAVE WE all been duped? Are we worrying far too much? Stearns, whose book is less a conventional history than an analysis of the social trope of the "vulnerable child," would have us think so. The black-and-white jacket of Anxious Parents sports a grimacing, horror-struck woman whose stylized appearance suggests the panic of a more naive age.

Stearns is certainly right that there is reason for skepticism. Today's unholy alliance between publicity-seeking experts and media outlets eager to attract the soccer morns who control so much household income has created an unwarranted sense of perpetual danger. False charges of sexual abuse by day-care workers, documented and exposed by Dorothy Rabinowitz in No Crueler Tyrannies, are one of the more disturbing examples of this phenomenon. But Stearns fails to appreciate the pressures on parents in an open, meritocratic society where their own efforts seem to determine so much about their child's future status. And besides, his portrait of childhood frailty will ring false to anyone who has seen an overworked child of today lugging a 50-pound book bag and carrying a filofax to rival a CEO's.

Hulbert, by contrast, tends to show more sympathy toward the anxious parents of this "disorienting" age, as she calls it. Her fairly straightforward history, including extensive biographical material of some of the bigger names in the expert business, often lacks shape, but it does put forth a thesis. What explains some of the scientific mood swings, she believes, is that experts were trying to answer a genuinely difficult question: how much control or freedom, intimacy or detachment, should adults exercise in preparing a child for modern adulthood? "As children ... prepare to meet the pressures and the allures of an increasingly materialistic and meritocratic mass society," she writes, "is it more discipline or more bonding that they need at home?" The "hard" spokesmen, like Holt and Watson, "spoke up for authority, discipline, and parental control usually in a blunt father-knows-best tone" while the "soft," like Gesell and to a lesser extent Spock, "urged love, bonding, and children's liberty."

Hulbert is groping toward something here, though without quite grasping it--namely, the degree to which American parental anxiety is itself an outgrowth of American exceptionalism. Unlike parents in more traditional societies, Americans in particular have always been faced with the contradictory and seemingly impossible task of exercising parental authority in order to cultivate in their children a spirit of freedom and autonomy.

From early on, American parents confronted the domestic version of one of the nation's core political dilemmas: how to create free individuals without giving them complete license, or, as we are more likely to hear it phrased today, how to balance individual rights and responsibility. By the early 19th century, ministers and intellectuals who were the child-rearing experts of the time were exhorting parents and teachers to treat children as, in Horace Mann's words, "active, voluntary agents"; in fact, European visitors were struck by the feisty independence (and occasionally insolent egotism) of the children they encountered here. In the 20th century, a new set of social and demographic pressures, many of them cited by both Hulbert and Stearns, exacerbated the tension between adult power and children's freedom. An increasingly pluralistic society could no longer be counted on to endorse parental authority, while children were in need of more venues for developing their creativity and individual talents if they were to take advantage of the new opportunities before them.

Hulbert misses the real point when she divides the experts into "hard" and "soft." As Stearns makes clear in an inadvertent correction to her thesis, what is remarkable in the story of the 20th century is how little any of the experts relied on the exercise of age-old patriarchal authority. Seeking to create an "effectively original ... problem-solving child," the "hard" Watson rejected both physical and emotional punishment. Later experts cast a cold eye on spanking, shaming, and scolding. Yet the growing prevalence of permissive approaches hardly dispelled the peculiarly American problem of how to wield parental authority: it only made it worse.

The history provided by Stearns and Hulbert suggests that parents are unlikely to find the answer to this enduring problem in the advice books they consume in such vast quantities. There is, indeed, no scientific formula for squaring the circle of authority and freedom. But that may help explain why it is that today's educated, striving, upwardly mobile middle-class parents are so worried: they have plenty to worry about.

* Knopf, 450 pp., $ 27.50.

([dagger]) New York University Press, 256 pp., $ 29.95.